Obama embryo research policy ‘a step backward,’ bioethics council members say

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

.- Ten members of the President’s Council on Bioethics have issued a statement seeking to “clarify” President Barack Obama’s comments on human embryonic stem cell research. The council members said Obama’s policy is “a step backward” because it fails to reconcile the needs of research and moral concerns.

Noting that new forms of stem cell research do not involve killing human embryos, the council members also warned that the president’s policy could permit funding for human cloning while requiring that clones be killed.

The ten members who signed the March 25 statement were Gilbert Meilaender, Paul McHugh, Benjamin Carson, Nicholas Eberstadt, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, William Hurlbut, Donald Landry, Peter Lawler, and Diana Schaub.

The members said that President Obama made an inaccurate characterization when he said his executive order lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).

“The policy announced by President Bush on August 9, 2001, did not ban federal funding of embryonic stem cell research; rather, for the first time, it provided and endorsed such funding (as long as the stem cell lines had been derived prior to that date),” the statement said.

Some pro-lifers had criticized Bush’s decision as an unacceptable compromise that would lead to further destruction of human embryos if the research progressed.

The council members said Bush’s policy was an attempt “to seek a way for science to proceed without violating the deep moral convictions of many of our fellow citizens.”

“Attention to the ethical principles that ought to guide and limit scientific research has been constant since the end of World War II. Different kinds of research have been limited, and sometimes prohibited, not in order to suppress science but in order to free it as a genuinely human and moral activity,” the group said.

Citing the President’s Council on Bioethics 2005 document “Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells,” the council members’ statement said researchers had advanced in other alternative methods. They also noted that The New York Times said in March that the embryonic stem cell research promoted by President Obama “has been somewhat eclipsed by new advances.”

The National Bioethics Advisory Commission, active under the Clinton administration, itself held that embryo-destructive research is justifiable “only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.”

“Such alternatives are now available, and research on them is advancing,” the council members’ March 25 statement said. “With respect to the progress that had been made in reconciling the needs of research and the moral concerns of many Americans, we can only judge, therefore, that the president’s action has taken a step backward, and we regret that.”

Turning to President Obama’s March 9 remarks on cloning, the statement said that the president’s new policy would permit federal funding of research on stem cells from “spare” IVF embryos but also on lines derived from created or cloned embryos.

“In the latter two cases, we would be producing embryos simply in order to use them for our purposes,” the statement said, warning that the President’s opposition to cloning for human reproduction could require the destruction of existing human embryos.

An earlier bioethics council document, “Human Cloning and Human Dignity,” warned that preventing cloning for reproductive purposes would require a law prohibiting the implantation of cloned embryos for the purpose of producing children.

“‘To do so, however, the government would find itself in the unsavory position of designating a class of embryos that it would be a felony not to destroy,’” the document notes.

 “We cannot believe that this would advance our society’s commitment to equal human dignity,” the council members’ March 25 statement said.

In a separate personal statement, President’s Council on Bioethics member Edmund D. Pellegrino voiced his individual support for “the substance of the objections of some council members to recent relaxation of existing policies regarding human embryonic stem cell research.”

“Ethically, I cannot support any policy permitting deliberate production and/or destruction of a human fetus or embryo for any purpose, scientific or therapeutic.”

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